Currently topping the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings with Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin is arguably the strongest dark horse candidate for this year's title - that is, providing he can get through this weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway with a win or strong enough finish to keep him in the top three in the points.
"That's obviously our goal is to go to Phoenix and win," said Hamlin on Tuesday, looking ahead to the penultimate Cup race of 2014. "It has been a good track [for us, but] it hasn't has been as great a racetrack for us since they repaved it.
"It's been more of a track position-type race, but still pretty optimistic," he insisted. "With this format last week it created an opportunity for us to put ourselves in a good position where, otherwise, we were probably going to have to win Phoenix when it came down to 40, 50 laps to go. Now we have a position where we can control our own destiny."
So far it's been Hamlin's best season since he finished as runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010, but the new Chase format being used for the first time this year means that the title battle is wide open.
"I think there was at that point of the year in 2010 it was myself, Jimmy and Kevin [Harvick] that had kind of broken ourselves away from the pack, where now there's obviously more players in the game," he agreed. "I don't feel like our performance is as high of a level now as it was then, so that's also more of an obstacle. But you still have the opportunity."
One of the things that 2010 taught him was the need to have some friends out there on the track when you're racing hard for a championship, something that Hamlin feels his Chase rival Brad Keselowski is yet to learn and which could ultimately cost the Penske driver his shot at a second title this month.
"I've made so many mistakes it's silly, but I've learned from them - and I feel like I've gotten the respect of my competitors because of that," said Hamlin. "And that goes a long way. Trust me, I can guarantee you this: if it comes down to the end of the race and someone can help me or they can help Brad and I've got the respect of that person, they're going to help me over Brad.
"It's hard to win a championship on your own on the racetrack," he pointed out. "And I feel like I've learned the hard way with that, that these guys can make your job hard, if they really want to."
Keselowski has twice been at the centre of post-race pit lane brawls in the last month, the first being at Charlotte Motor Speedway where both Hamlin and his JGR team mate Matt Kenseth were furious with him; and most recently this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, where Jeff Gordon stormed into the Penske pit area to confront Keselowski after contact between the pair had spun Gordon out of the lead of the race on the penultimate restart.
"I don't know what Brad thought, but I thought from my perspective, if I was in that car and shoes, that I would have to know that I'm not going to make it through that hole without having contact of some sort," said Hamlin of the on-track incident. "That's fine. But if it costs somebody a bad day, you're going to have to expect retaliation - which I'm sure he did. So you'll have to take it with a grain of salt.
"I don't know. I think about that a lot and whether I would or would not [have made that move]," Hamlin mused. "[Brad] was on fresher tires, so saying that that was his only opportunity to get the win may not necessarily be a true statement. He still had two laps to get around.
"But I think a common feel amongst drivers is .... That was a very small hole, and the car is call it six and a half, seven foot wide, that hole was six foot," he noted. "It was not enough that a car was going to fit without being in contact, somebody was going to have to pay the price. It was Jeff Gordon, and it made him have a bad day."
Hamlin added that he felt that Keselowski had then made an unfortunate situation even worse by how he'd subsequently handled the confrontation with Gordon on pit road.
"I think it was the moment where Brad kind of blew Jeff off was when it set things off," he explained. "I think if Brad would have talked to Jeff and said, 'Man, I was going for a hole. It was my only chance, you know, I'm really sorry it cut your tyre,' I think it goes totally different. Instead, it was 'Oh, well, sorry, bud, you left a hole.' If he did it to me I would have had the same reaction as Jeff, no question. I think that's what escalated it the most.
"As drivers, you're just looking at someone to say 'I'm sorry I ruined your day, I screwed up, oh, well, I apologise,'" he added. "When that doesn't get said, then immediately it just lights a fire in your stomach that [the other driver] doesn't have any remorse. It's just like 'Oh, well, it's your problem.'
"You don't have to apologize - Brad doesn't have to apologize, I'll be 100 percent clear on that," Hamlin clarified. "But he just has to realise that about not apologising. Even if you don't mean it, just give the guy 30 seconds of your time to hear what he's got to say and have some dialogue.
"To blow someone off and think that the world revolves around you, you just escalate that person's feelings against you times ten. So sometimes you just have to just face the music and if you're in something, just listen to what the other person has to say and you may not always agree. And, look, I'm not the prime example.
"I think that the challenge a lot of drivers probably have right now with Brad is there's no remorse," Hamlin suggested. "He has the right to feel the way that he feels, but when there's no accountability [then] they're going to be upset with you.
"So you just have to expect it," he added. "It's tough to win a championship if nobody likes you. That is going to be a very, very tough task. So I mean I think that you're just going to always have to just watch your mirror, and that's a tough way to race. It really is a tough way to race."
Hamlin also gave short shrift to Keselowski's post-race comments in which the Penske driver had said he wasn't going to back down and be bullied into being less aggressive in future, and that this was the way he needed to race.
"When I hear Brad say that this is the only way a person like me can make it, what do you mean 'like you'? I had to get here just on hard work too. I didn't have money behind me or anything else. What's the difference? I hate that statement, and I feel like it's a scapegoat statement when it says this is the only way that a person like me can make it," Hamlin insisted. "You don't have to run into people to be successful.
"I believe that that is a bad statement that he throws out there every time. But it's his prerogative and he can do what he wants. He has a job and has an owner that loves him and he's driving for a very fast crew chief," he added.
"He's got a lot of really good things working for him. In my opinion - and I want to stress 'my opinion' because this is what I think - is that he just has got to work on the respect factor from his peers," Hamlin suggested. "People see potential in the way he drives and that he is fast and he does a great job and has already won a championship in a very short career."
But turning away from the topic of Keselowski and back to his own Chase prospects, Hamlin is focussed firmly on this weekend's event at Phoenix that will make-or-break everyone's fortunes, with none of the eight drivers still in contention yet guaranteed a spot in the season finale race-off. The venue wasn't kind to him in 2010 when it effectively put him out of reach of Johnson and ended his title hopes this year, but four years on everything is very different.
"My job is just to do whatever is in front of me at that point and that's what I feel like I've learned throughout the years of being in these kind of championship pictures," he said. "I think NASCAR hit a total home run with this format and obviously it shows up with the intensity that the drivers are showing right now.
"I think as tense as eight drivers are going to be this weekend, cautious is going to make you finish about 17th, so I can't count on that," he pointed out. "You especially can't be lax on restarts. The freight train, stuck on the top line, can't get down. There's a lot of factors that track does not allow you to be conservative at.
"I go there more worried about can we finish top ten on performance than I am, 'Hey, let's just kind of back our way into it, let's just kind of coast to the finish line here.' I just don't think that with eight guys still in it, that's going to be possible.
"I think there's three of us that can finish top ten and make it," he suggested. "But everyone else is going to be fighting for a win and knowing that that win could be [the difference in making] the finale - I don't know, it could be in my opinion as intense as you've seen each one of these last weekends.
"These cut-off races, obviously, are huge and pivotal," he added. "Not sure we've ever had really nobody eliminated going into an elimination race. So I don't know. I would just tell the fans to hang on and buckle up and see what happens."
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+2) Joey Logano 4072pts
2. (+3) Denny Hamlin 4072pts
3. (-1) Ryan Newman 4070pts (-2pts)
4. (-3) Jeff Gordon 4060pts (-12pts)
5. (-1) Matt Kenseth 4059pts (-13pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4059pts (-13pts)
7. (--) Brad Keselowski 4055pts (-17pts)
8. (--) Kevin Harvick 4054pts (-18pts)
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